Finalist: Terrain.org 8th Annual Contest in Fiction
He stood, shoulders slumped, in the midst of the cluttered garage. Bewildered. Cardboard boxes, some overflowing and some half-empty, half-crushed, were piled precariously against every wall. The only reason that the entire mess didn’t collapse was that it was chinked and interwoven with volleyball sets, rakes, bags of fertilizer and potting soil, hoses, an old crib, and so on. He thought ruefully of the time when all he owned fit in the back of the old short-bed Ford.
He needed the hedge trimmers. It was fall, a Saturday, and time for the final manicure before winter. His wife had taken the kids to her parents for the weekend, giving him a chance to complete the last items on the to-do list. He could hear a frenzied hum of lawnmowers and other obnoxious contraptions from neighbors finishing off similar lists before the football games kicked off on TV. Resigned, he pulled a green plastic tarp off the top of a pile and began searching for the trimmers.
It had all been so well-intentioned. He had fallen in love (with the right woman, finally), married, worked his way up in the company. Got transferred to a larger city, became middle-management. Typical stuff. By the time the kids were born, he was already swallowed by the details, the miscellaneous and mushrooming trivial tasks required to be proper and respectable and upwardly mobile. He knew that there was nothing overtly wrong with that, and also knew that many people clung hard to and found security in such things, but he had always harbored a silent and well-hidden resentment.
As he poked through his stuff, he thought of the year when he had camped, fished, or hunted every weekend from March through November; when he had some, well, inexplicable things happen to him. When his scattered knowledge of Eastern mysticism and Native American beliefs was continually coming closer to merging with what he was experiencing in nature, or the “real world” as he called it. Versus the contrived realities of society, such as this out-of-control garage. Words rose to the surface of his mind, the source long since forgotten:
Heron does not intend
to cast a reflection;
The water has no mind
to receive it.
He knew there was a time when he had understood the meaning of this poem, but now, although still intriguing and somehow important, it seemed just a confusing mix of cryptic phrases. Ah, the hedge trimmer…
It had fallen between a box and the wall, the butt of the handle barely showing. When he tried to pull it out, he found the cutting blades entangled with monofilament, an old fishing leader. Yanking on the leader caused a rapid clicking whir that elicited a delighted response in him: his fly reel! He had not fished, nor even thought of it, for years, not since his oldest daughter had been born. He carefully lifted out the reel and the supple rod, snapped the rotten leader away from the hedge trimmer, and leaned back against the car.
He dusted the rod with his fingers, carefully, almost reverently, as if it was a sacred and fragile instrument capable of miraculous deeds. A split bamboo rod with a single action reel, of good quality but not ostentatious. He wandered into the backyard, stripped line, and made a short cast onto the sidewalk.
He was a fisherman. Stunned, he realized that he had almost forgotten this singular fact of his existence. The rod became a natural extension of his arm, completing his body and actions from something a bit off center to something graceful and flowing. Some men define their lives through art or money or power. Some are fishermen.
It didn’t take him long. He opened the trunk of the car and quickly tossed in a sleeping bag, tent, creel, and cooking utensils. A short scribbled note to his wife, “Gone fishing to Cascade Lake, be back Sun. nite, will explain later.” He stopped for groceries, ice and beer, and was on the road. Screw the hedge.
On the three-hour drive to the lake he felt strangely excited and a little nervous. There were very few times in his life that he had been impulsive and although he generally mistrusted impulsiveness, he remembered those moments as special, sometimes pivotal points in his life.
As he neared the foothills, he turned off the interstate onto a highway that entered a broad valley. After 20 miles he would turn onto a gravel road up a short narrow canyon, then switchback up a long slope of ponderosa pine until he gained the rim. He smiled wryly at his use of the term “impulsive.”
Impulse, really, had little to do with it. As soon as he had heard the whirring of the reel he had known instantly that this was what he was to do. Fate, predestination, karma, whatever. It existed, it happened, occasionally transporting one’s life through light years of change, then dropping suddenly away to let one slowly re-establish a fumbling semblance of order and continuity.
He reached the basalt rim of the great undulating mesa, took the first track turning back to the edge, and stopped the car. He got out, pissed on a stunted yucca, and walked to the rim. He breathed deeply, something he found utterly unrewarding and even unnecessary in the city. Unlike the pungent, crisp air generated by the aspen glades on the mesa behind him, the air rising over the rim from the valley below was warm, expansive, almost fertile. A cloudless day, the irrigated pastures below still held a deep summer green, zigzagged by white pole fences. The oak run on the opposite slope and the meadows on the far side of the canyon were already showing autumn color, with isolated pockets of yellow beginning to appear in the aspen. A red-tailed hawk glided in from behind him, hit the updraft on the rim and soared explosively upward, screeching, gaining altitude to make another circle over the meadow behind him. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath.
He opened his first beer when he thought he was about 30 minutes from the lake. The mesa road was dusty and longer than he remembered. Cascade Lake was situated at the mouth of a small U-shaped valley which originated in a cirque against the line of peaks that rose abruptly from the mesa. The road leading to the lake followed the drainage in a rocky, steep canyon knotted with clusters of spruce and fir, then gouged its way up a series of switchbacks that ended at the lake.
No, it was not impulse. He did not know what was going to happen, only that whatever it was could not be prevented or controlled, or even instigated. His life could be changed in some manner; he could see things in a different way or understand something that he had known before.
The weathered Forest Service sign was still there, nailed to the fir stump: Cascade Lake, 2 mi. He took the turn and immediately shifted into second, then first. The ruts were deep and criss-crossed each other so frequently that it was impossible to stay either in them or on top of them. He stopped the car briefly to open another beer. The condition of the road pleased him; it would keep at least the worst of the “flat-land touristers” away from the lake.
The anticipation of seeing the lake and knowing that some sort of adventure awaited him was heightening his senses, clearing the fuzzy, dull spaces from his brain. The beer tasted good and he was beginning to feel almost exuberant. Soon he could stop all this internal mind-rattle and set up camp, fish, eat, and sleep. The important stuff. But as he took the first switchback he made a clear and firm decision, based on the creeping realization that these openings were arising much less frequently as he grew older: If it happens, I will experience this thing as intensely as possible, clean and pure–I want to go deep this time.
The lake was as he remembered: a sparkling vision of enticing water. One shore ran steeply upwards to a rocky knoll through a tangle of spruce; on the opposite side the lingering remains of a moraine provided a less angular incline that had suffered a fire about 30 years ago. It was now overgrown with a low-stunted hedge of wind-torn fir. At the upper end: a long meadow of deep grass and sedge, the stream meandering through it, path shaped by beavers. The rock dam was a neat riprap of sharp winter-grey boulders, still cleanly chipped from blasting. The dam provided a slight break against the up-canyon breeze.
Rings from surface-feeding trout pocked the lake. An insect would land on the water, a trout would rise from the murk below to slurp it in, breaking the placid plane. A ring would form, expanding across the sheen of water until it gentled away into nothingness. It was that simple, and that pleased him.
Almost as pleasing was the presence of only three other vehicles, with no camps set up. The people were strung out along the dam, probably fishing with salmon eggs, bobbers, and ten-pound test line, and probably catching a few of the stocked rainbows. They would be gone by dusk.
The road continued a half-mile past the lake, ending on a timbered bench at a trailhead and an old aspen-log corral used by outfitters during the early hunting season, now no more than three weeks away. From there the trail worked its way three miles along the drainage up and into the cirque, where it zigzagged to a pass and then down into another basin. A small, jagged side canyon came into the valley from the east, clotted with protruding rock pillars, the black of spruce-fir thickets, and scattered stands of aspen.
He edged the car off the road a couple hundred yards short of the trailhead, relieved to end the sharp bite of the rocks on the car’s tires. There was only room for the parked car and the tent before the slope fell off steeply to the stream in great bunches of tall, yellowed grass.
He made camp slowly and precisely, savoring each task as if he was retrieving something precious and fragile. The aluminum tent stakes slid smoothly but firmly into the black soil; he found a dead moth inside the nylon tent, its wings warped but still iridescent. He dug out a circle of grass, laid it under the car to be replaced later, and collected small chunks of granite for the fire ring. His first axe-swing into a spruce stump glanced off wildly, nearly striking him, but he soon began landing the blade deep and clean with each stroke. He stacked three full armloads of wood near the fire-ring: kindling, heavily laden and redolent of pitch, limbs and split pieces sized for cooking coals, and some big chunks for after dinner.
He sat cross-legged on the largest block of wood, opened another beer, and spread out his tackle. He knew if he organized it at the lake it would not be done properly, that he would be too anxious to answer the surfacing rings of the rising trout. His monofilament, kept on spools away from the sun, was still good and he tied two tapered leaders, clinching the knots firmly, and attached one to his fly-line. He opened his fly-box, smiled, and ran his finger across the hackles. Flies to him were things of art, perhaps something beyond art. He recognized each fly in the box, knew if it had been used before, if a frayed edge denoted taking a fish. It was time. He snapped the box shut, dropped it in the creel, donned his rubber boots, and set off down the slope to the lake.
Halfway to the water he finished the beer, now a bit warm and bitter, stomped the can flat and put it in his hip pocket. The boots were clumsy and made noise, but he knew that there would be a mud flat where the stream fed into the lake. He had found his waders in the garage, but they were cracked and useless with age. A third of the lake was dark in shadow now, the remainder a deep turquoise. The breeze had already ended for the day and the surface of the lake was perfectly flat. He forced his eyes from the water and turned a full circle, admiring the valley and the line of peaks beyond, the small remnant slabs of snow on them becoming luminescent in the failing light. He arrived at the inlet a bit breathless, whether from the altitude or the view he couldn’t tell.
The stream, maybe eight feet wide but only inches deep in places, flowed silently into the mud flat from a scattering of willow. The bottom was a clean, light umber gravel meandering into a darkened channel as it extended into the lake. On either side of the channel were long runs of brilliant green algae, nearly touching the surface. Small trout rose vigorously between the algae runs, feeding. Farther out in the lake were the rings and swirls of the cautious, larger fish. He figured the small fish to be the native cutthroats; the larger fish were either the rainbows or browns, the latter a reproducing population extant from a single stocking over 20 years ago. The browns would be spawning now, either in the inlet or upstream.
In his fly-box were only five types of flies and of each type there were six or eight of varying shades and hook sizes. He had never found it necessary, only a bit tedious, to match exactly the insect on the water. Latin names of aquatic invertebrates linked tenuously with one of a thousand available fly patterns always seemed to obfuscate the issue. He came to fish. The only true requirements were joining the rhythm of the water and the mood of the trout. He picked a small gnat pattern and knotted it to his line.
He stripped line from the reel and gracefully worked it out over the water. The thick, sinuous line felt good in his fingers; a beaver on the far shore slapped the water at the whirring sound of the reel. The last of the other fishermen drove out of sight. He laughed aloud, totally saturated in the problem he always had. His mind and senses, totally aware and open, could not possibly absorb the entire setting; it was wonderfully overwhelming.
The fly line landed perfectly between two runs of algae, a gently falling squiggle that barely rippled the surface. The trailing fly alighted about five feet beyond, touching down into an instantaneous rise. He set the hook sharply, laughing again, as the leaping struggles of an eight-inch cutthroat barely jiggled his rod tip. He made six more long, arcing casts in the algae beds and landed three more cutthroats of similar size–enough for supper.
The larger trout in the inlet had seen him and moved into deeper water. He made a few cursory casts in their direction, but they were well beyond range. The surface of the lake was now vibrant with rings of rising trout; across the entire surface expanding rings shimmered in an electric medley of gold and blue.
He walked briskly upstream, knelt in the long grass at the end of a pool, and cleaned the fish. He tossed the offal into the brush across the stream for the ravens and jays. The west face of the peaks now glowed pink in the last of the sun, and the spruce-fir stands were rapidly becoming black voids. He thought once that he had caught a faint yapping of coyotes from the unnamed canyon that came into the valley upstream and from the east.
He grilled the trout over flameless coals and simmered a can of beans alongside. No moon, only an infinity of stars. He drank icy milk straight from the carton while watching the tails of the trout curl and blacken. He felt fresh and clean,and alive.
He ate the trout in much the same way that he fished: gracefully, efficiently, and without preoccupation. Flaking the flesh from the bones in the firelight and eating slowly, he savored each morsel, as if partaking the wild country and the shimmering of the water into his body with each bite.
He lay mesmerized by the fire for a long time, curled between the clumps of tall grass. Finally, he boiled water and made coffee that went into a thermos for morning. He let the fire die down again and then urinated on it, loving the rancid smoke-smell and the pop of dying coals. He stared into the stars with the smoke still wafting around him, then closed his eyes for a moment and shuddered. He made his way into the tent and slept. His sleep was dreamless.
When he awoke and poked his head out of the tent the brilliant stars still shined overhead, but the eastern horizon held a promise of grey light. He wriggled back into the sleeping bag and unscrewed the thermos, feeling the steam from the coffee on his face. He drank it slowly, cupped in both hands. He felt calm and at peace. But he still retained a premonition that something out of the ordinary would happen, even though many times when he felt this way nothing happened at all.
He decided to fish the inlet of the lake at first light, hoping for a large fish, and then move up the stream in search of the spawning browns. He looked out of the tent again–still too early. The grass was frosted: he would need his boots. He poured the remaining coffee and ate two donuts. A big orange and brown woolly worm might work, drifted deep and twitched.
The road back to the lake was hard and noisy, and he stumbled and fell hard just before he started to cut across the meadow. He stopped about ten feet from the water, wanting to leave his night clumsiness behind. His fingers were stiff from the cold and slow to grasp the line and he shivered a little. A slowly moving vee appeared on the surface, silently coming out of the foggish mist that hung over the center of the lake. The beaver came directly toward him and then slurped away at 50 feet. The reel also seemed stiff and slow, he would need to oil it when he got home. The water displayed only a fine grey surface, with depth and bottom contours impossible to define. He worked the stream first, knowing it was very shallow here, but also knowing it could hold fish in this early light. He could feel his fly bounce quickly over the gravel but there were no takes.
He cast farther into the lake, just at the last roil caused by the stream. He waited, giving a bit of slack line while the woolly worm sank deeper. When he guessed it to be at the bottom he lifted the rod slightly with his wrist, twitching the fly. On the third twitch his rod bent suddenly to the lake and line screamed from the reel. His heart pounded and his breath came in fits; the veins in his neck swelling. The fish ran straight for 40 feet, the line racing hotly through his fingers. And then the writhing silver muscle leaped grandly into the air. A rainbow. It made another run, still following the submerged channel, and jumped again. He laughed and held the rod high.
It took him nearly ten minutes to land the fish as it swam into the algae banks and alternately thrashed in the algae and then exploded on the surface many times in succession. A thick, silvery female weighing almost four pounds, cold and feisty as he held it.
He killed it on a frost-covered log and stuffed it into the long cold grass. His children had never eaten wild trout before.
He let the water calm and then fished the inlet steadily for another hour. He kept the largest fish, a pair of intensely colored cutthroats, and then worked upstream toward camp, getting a nice brown that had already spawned. Hungry, he headed for camp, iced the fish, and ate a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast.
He dried the tent fly, stuffed his sleeping bag and packed his remaining gear into the trunk. He scattered the fire-ring stones down the slope and placed the heavy chunk of sod in the fire pit. He sat down on the edge of the slope and finished the carton of milk.
The day was clear and beginning to warm. A few grasshoppers, stubborn to the cold, jumped in the tall grass. Nothing strange had happened. He had fished well, caught good trout, and, last night, felt the place deeply. But the experience that he had anticipated had not come. Sometimes it was like that. He looked at his watch: 10:30. He decided to fish upstream until one, and then turn around, keeping fish until he had his limit.
He changed into sneakers and ambled down the slope.
Perhaps he had done something improperly. It was hard to tell.
A muddler would be good, fished aggressively, threatening the spawning beds. Perhaps the last six years had been done improperly.
Perhaps, he chuckled, I should have kept the garage neater. Or finished the hedge.
He fished smoothly, without thinking, without decision. Familiar pools and runs were fished fondly, remembered as old friends. If he turned a brown without setting the hook, or happened to spot one finning over a redd, he would edge away, marking the water for later when he would be keeping fish. Killing spawning browns did not bother him. One pair could provide an ample population of fry for the lake, besides the fact that browns, being harder to catch, tended to overpopulate and stunt.
He came eventually to the mouth of the small, rugged side canyon running to the east beyond a logjam piled askew among huge boulders and a dense clutter of willows. He had always detoured around this area, as the stream was braided here, with no fishable runs. This time, however, he began wending his way through the head-high willows and over the rotting logs.
For the first time he glimpsed the small creek coming out of the side canyon. Not much more than a foot-wide gurgle of water, it ran alongside a green-grey lichen-covered bluff forming a dark pool just before it joined the main stream. Though midday, the pool lay in shadow. He thought he detected the movement of a fish. An Adams fly on the surface. Yes.
Quickly he tied on the fly and dropped the muddler into his box. It would be a tricky cast, a little sideways, with only the leader dropping on the still water of the pool. The Adams flitted out perfectly, nicking the edge of the bluff, falling lightly on the surface. It floated about two feet, a fourth of the length of the pool, swirling once from a loop in the leader, and then suddenly disappeared in a ripping slash of water. A brown of maybe two pounds bulled frantically back and forth in the tiny pool, finally flopping itself up on the bank of rough gravel. He pounced on the fish, at first intending to kill it. But as he loosened the hook a strangeness overtook him, and he placed the fish back into the pool, stroked its orange-spotted sides, and pushed it out farther into the water. It was a strong fish, fearless and beautiful in its spawning.
He wiped his hands on his pants and glanced upstream. Perhaps there was another pool. Skirting around a fallen tree, he found, in slender yellowing ferns, a cluster of elk droppings. He picked up one of the droppings and crushed it between his fingers. It was moist and almost warm. From this morning. He looked around, feeling the presence of the elk, expecting it to be watching him. There was now an intense silence. He heard a limb break far up in the canyon, and the screech of a distant hawk. The air was heavy, with no sense of warmth or coolness, and smelled of dying fern, lichen, and fungus. He knew. This was the time, the place.
He found another pool, below a dark-pitted boulder, the water flowing around one side. A single shaft of sunlight penetrated the firs and played on the surface.
His mouth dropped as his mind finally understood what he saw: a luminous, trembling ring on the surface of the pool, the result, surely, of a rising fish. But incredibly the ring did not expand; it hovered in one place, suspended, shimmering. It beckoned his fly, but for a moment he could not move. He felt even the slightest of breaths would destroy the moment.
Hypnotized by the ring, he unconsciously began to strip line, readying his cast. The clicking whir of the reel was a loud and awful sound in the stillness. His mind flashed to the hedge trimmers and the garage, his family and the security of his life there. His fear did not come from sensing the ring; it came from being unable to imagine the nature of the fish, the life that might lie beneath it, and what it would demand from him. He could still back away.
The stilled ring quivered in the shaft of sunlight, sparkling, alive. And he suddenly understood the poem about the heron and the water. His hands, his rod, his line began to shake from the tremendous pounding of his heart, for he had no mind to receive it.
Header photo by striker, courtesy Pixabay.